Spandex 101: The Basics

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Spandex: Fabric of choice for ridiculous (but awesome) comic book costumes. Photo by Black Vest Photography.

Pull up a chair, grab some coffee, and let’s chat about spandex. Spandex is an amazing fabric for both cosplay and everyday wear. It’s amazing for any project that needs a bit of stretch, whether you’re looking to turn yourself into a superhero or make a pair of sexy yoga pants.

Just to be upfront, I don’t feel particularly skilled at working with spandex. However, I have been dabbling with it for about a year now, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned along the way.

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My Kotobukiya Rogue bodysuit consists of both moleskin and milliskin fabric. Bodysuit made by Meredith Placko. Photo by Aperture Ashley.

Terminology

First up, let’s talk terminology. Spandex (or elastine outside of North America) is a synthetic fabric known for its exceptional stretchiness. Many knit fabrics and even some wovens contain a small amount of spandex (around 3-5%) to allow for stretchiness in daily wear. I’m focusing today on the spandex you find in dance and swimwear, which contains significantly higher amounts of spandex (typically 10-20% or so).

Lycra is one of the more common brand names of spandex. Think of it as the difference between Kleenex and facial tissue.

There are many types of spandex that you can choose from when designing costumes. One of the biggest things to take into consideration when selecting a spandex is whether it is 2-way or 4-way stretch. 2-way stretch fabric will only stretch one direction: horizontally or vertically. 4-way stretch fabric will stretch in both directions. This is especially important for finding a fabric that will work for your pattern. If a pattern calls for 2-way stretch, you can use 4-way stretch fabric. However, if your pattern calls for 4-way stretch, you can’t use 2-way stretch without altering the pattern.

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Deadpool, made by me. The red is a dyed moleskin fabric and the black is stretch vinyl. Both fabrics are from Spandex World.

Here’s a quick overview of a few specialty types of spandex, courtesy of Spandex World:

  • Nylon spandex such as milliskin. This is a bit thinner than heavy-weight spandex such as moleskin. Moleskin is thick enough that you typically don’t need a lining, but milliskin might. For reference, the yellow on my Kotobukiya Rogue is moleskin and the green is milliskin.
  • Cotton and Rayon Lycra is most often found in things like t-shirts and yoga wear.
  • Performance lycra is used for athletic clothing. It is specifically designed to wick moisture away from the body, so it’s a better bet for active wear than cotton lycra, which retains moisture.
  • Specialty prints, like all those fun galaxy and mermaid prints. These are ridiculously fun.
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Bombshell swimsuit, made with spandex from my go-to shop: Dallas Spandex Wherehouse!

Where to Buy Spandex

So where can you get spandex? Most of the time, anywhere that sells fabric will have some type of spandex available for sale. Here are a few of my go-to resources:

  • Spandex World
  • Spandex House
  • Girl Charlee
  • Michael Levine
  • Local spandex warehouse. I’m fortunately to live in an area that has a fabric district, so Dallas Spandex is one of my go-to spots. In fact, I often check there first since I hate paying $15-20 for shipping. I’d rather have the extra yardage! Check Google to see if there’s a good spandex outlet near you.

A note: I would not use the spandex that’s available at Hancock’s and Jo-Ann’s. Most of the time, that fabric is insanely sheer and ridiculously overpriced. Use only in case of emergency!

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Tools of the Trade

The last topic I want to mention briefly is commonly used tools. There’s a misconception that you absolutely have to have a serger (also known as an overlocker) in order to use spandex. This is completely false! Having a serger will make life easier, but it’s not an absolute must. I’ll talk about techniques you can use sans serger next time, but if you want to learn more right now, check out check out this post from Craftsy.

Here are a few tools I always use when working with spandex:

  • Stretch needle: This is an absolute must. Have you ever tried to sew a knit or with spandex and gotten skipped stitches? Most likely, it’s because you’re using the wrong needle. Stretch needles are specifically designed for those super stretchy fabrics and will help you get consistent, even stitches.
  • A machine with a stretch stitch: Non-negotiable. Most of the time, I just use a basic zig-zag stitch, but sometimes, you might need a specialty stretch stitch, like a chain stitch. Check your sewing machine manual for specific stitches.
  • Rotary and board: Obviously, you can use scissors instead, but I find a rotary cutter super helpful with most of my fabric cutting and spandex in particular. Spandex can get slinky and move around, so I like to just lay it flat and use pattern weights to hold everything down. This can be expensive at about $80 full price, so if you’re on a budget, keep an eye out for 40-50% off coupons from Jo-Ann’s and Hancock’s.
  • Fabric weights: Same reason here as the rotary and board. You can buy fabric weights if you want, but they’re pretty hefty in price. Washers are an inexpensive alternative, and you can make ’em super cute.

That’s it for today! Next week, I’ll talk about pretreating and prepping your fabric, some of my go-to superhero patterns and modifications, and sewing construction. If you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future post, please mention it in the comments!

Have you worked with spandex before? What are some of your favorite tips and tricks?

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